The brainchild of director/producer Jon Schnitzer, Haunters: The Art of the Scare is a new documentary that goes behind the scenes of some of the most renowned and divisive haunted house attractions in the United States. Following a premiere at the 2017 Fantastic Fest last week in Austin, Texas, the film officially hit Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital platforms this past Tuesday. Our own Trace Thurman rather enjoyed the film, reporting that it was a “highly entertaining and heartwarming” watch (full review here).
I held very similar sentiments upon catching Haunters myself and found Schnitzer’s perspective to be honest, fascinating, and surprisingly heartfelt. During the fest, I was fortunate enough to sit and chat about the film with Schnitzer and legendary scare actor Shar Mayer, who has been working in the haunt industry for almost 40 years and who also details many of her personal experiences across various haunts in the film. Ever committed to her art, Mayer donned full zombie makeup during our interview–a likely off-putting show for some of the non-horror fans at the festival, but one I found to be in charming juxtaposition to her warm and gracious personality.
A lifelong lover of haunted houses and genuinely curious filmmaker, Schnitzer was also in high spirits and very excited to chat about the film. “I grew up loving going to haunted houses for Halloween,” he recalls. “My birthday’s in October, so my party was always at a bunch of haunted houses. We’d go from haunt to haunt to haunt. It’s so much fun, I love it. It’s your chance to actually scream your head off! Like, adults get to scream their heads off and be like little kids, you know?”
When asked about the inspirations for the film, Schnitzer recalls not the haunts of early childhood, but rather the various other types of haunts that began to pop up over time. “I started noticing haunts were getting more diverse,” Schnitzer states. “So I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. We can do something that really captures what’s going on, from the ‘boo scare’ mazes to the haunts that are […] full contact-extreme haunts.”
The film is framed around the exploration of the folks behind various types of haunts in the country–from Donald Julson and his more traditional Nightmare on Loganberry home haunt in Lakeview, California to more immersive, extreme haunts like Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor’s Blackout in New York and Los Angeles. “It’s the full spectrum,” Schnitzer explains. “And now there’s […] a haunt for every sub-genre of horror. You have […] Saw and you have escape rooms. You have Hostel and you have extreme haunts. You get supernatural thrillers–well, you have Delusion, the interactive haunted house play. You want a little bit of both of the extreme and the interactive, you have things like The 17th Door. There are so many really cool attractions that are out there, and I wanted to get to know the people who made them and the people behind the mask.”
What audiences will come to find very quickly about the world of haunts is that there is one individual very well known in the industry for his overt–and arguably exploitative–scare tactics and full-contact extremism. That individual is Russ McKamey and his haunt McKamey Manor (previously located in San Diego) has come to be associated with intense verbal and psychological torment, waterboarding, full-contact physical coercion, inductions of temporary psychological dissociation, and, even once, an incident involving dog feces. “I’ve been an actor with Blackout, so I love Blackout as an extreme haunt. You mentioned The 17th Door, I love that,” Mayer explains once McKamey is brought up. “The difference between those two and what Russ does–McKamey Manor–is there’s a safe word. If you’re done, you’re done. And that’s an important thing to me. I don’t want to… abduct people and torture them. I want to scare them, and play with them, and have fun with them, and make them scream, and have them in terror. And then they can go home and talk to their friends and tell them what a great time they had screaming. I don’t wanna… do things to people that damage them for good.”
The film spends plenty of time exploring McKamey’s version of “haunting” from his own perspective–which, according to McKamey himself, is centered on getting the most shocking video footage he can, no matter what it takes. Given his aforementioned decision not to use a safe word in his haunt–a staple in literally every other major haunt in the country–his place in the industry appears to be on the fringes. Mayer reveals McKamey is “pretty much on his own. Anyone that you talk to in the industry don’t… like him, don’t consider him as part of the industry, don’t like what he’s doing.” She takes this even a step further, explaining, “I’ve done this for almost 40 years! I’ve done this for a long time, so I’ve seen the gamut [… and] I love working in ‘em all, I love going to ‘em all. I would never set foot in McKamey Manor.”
Some argue that many of the folks who sign up to visit McKamey Manor know that they’re getting into; in a rather transparent move, McKamey makes much of his extreme in-haunt footage available on YouTube. Schnitzer sees the situation as a bit more complex than that, however. “When you watch those videos, you don’t know what it smells like in there, you don’t know what it feels like. That’s why I like having a safe word in the extreme haunts.” He continues, “When you go to a haunted house and your heart starts racing, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh my God. Can I take this anymore?’ And you can yell a safe word and be out of there, you can also feel proud of yourself for how far you made it, and you can actually have a sense of power there. I asked Russ only, like, maybe 200 times, ‘Why don’t you have a safe word? Come on, just have a safe word already.’ And he refuses to. […] He just doesn’t wanna do that.”
With this being the case, Schnitzer reveals one especially ironic fact about McKamey, which is touched on in the film. “I asked [McKamey], ‘Have you ever been through your own haunted house?’ And he said, ‘No, I’d never do it.’ And that was the thing with Blackout; they’ve all put themselves through to see themselves go through it.” Mayer chimes in, “I’ve talked to [McKamey] a few times. Actually, he came the haunt I was working at, The 17th Door. We freaked him out pretty good. He’s pretty easy to scare.”
Despite–or likely because of–his reputation, McKamey’s videos have millions of views, and Schnitzer ultimately appears fascinated by the number of individuals who are not at all shaken by his methods. He explains with a laugh, “Half of the people that I was testing this movie out on […] wanted to burn down McKamey Manor, and a half of them wanted to go there and wanted to go through it and wanted to work it! I was so surprised at how many businessmen were dying to go to McKamey Manor after they watched the movie.”
While McKamey’s seemingly villainous stature in the industry is made evident in the film, Schnitzer remains clear on his decision to simply present all of his Haunters subjects as they are. “I’m not narrating anything, because I don’t want to hold anyone’s hand in this documentary,” the director clarifies. “Everybody has something about them. We can always connect with somebody over something. And I just had no interest in just, you know… just demonizing somebody. [McKamey was] opening his doors to me and letting me film everything. But I wanted you to see. I was so curious when I watch his videos… what’s he doing behind the camera? What is it like when he’s filming? Filming him while he was filming the other people, […] it was wild to see it.”
Such debates presented in the film certainly represent many of its more thought-provoking highlights, but Haunters in its entirety is certainly not all gloom, doom, and ire. The movie ultimately finds tonal balance amidst a set of very humanizing backstories–from Nightmare on Loganberry creator Julson’s childhood and relationship with his new wife, to Mayer’s struggle with physical injury in haunts over the years, to the revelation of McKamey’s wedding singer past and close relationship with his late father. Schnitzer resolves, “I want people to get to know everybody, and I want you to at least have one part in the movie with every person that’s in it where you get to empathize with them for a moment and see things from their perspective.” Mayer adds, “I learned some things about Russ in this movie that I didn’t know. I mean… I interact with him from time to time, but I did learn some things, and seeing him as a wedding singer–that is really funny.”
Heightening each of these individual backstories are a set of killer themes that Schnitzer was ecstatic to chat about. “I was able to get the band Empty Set to give me that song for [the McKamey Manor] part of the movie, because that song captures […] this panic attack feeling,” he says. “Jonathan Snipes sent me that song and […] actually scored the McKamey Manor theme. He’s the composer of [Room] 237 and The Nightmare. […] Donald [Julson]’s theme was kid’s toys. Alexander Burke came up with the idea. He was like, ‘You know what? Xylophones and kid’s toys, because it’s about his childhood. It’s all about his childhood.’ I was like, ‘What a beautiful idea. What a beautiful thought.'”
The musical talent behind the film’s soundtrack elsewhere are also quite impressive, with some rather big names rounding out the list. “We have two songs from Dead Man’s Bones, [an act comprised of] Zach Shields, the co-writer of Krampus and the new Godzilla, and Ryan Gosling. Neil Baldock—who’s worked with Radiohead, Wilco and Kanye West–he worked on six songs with Alexander Burke, who’s worked with David Lynch. I mean, this is … I’m so lucky. I went after all the people I really admire, and they all signed up and helped out. The sound that goes with it, the music that goes with it… I hope it helps you into the world of Halloween.”
By the time the credits roll, Haunters clearly seeks to tap into a particular joy associated with Halloween–namely the experience of having a blast while being scared. Mayer perceives the film as a means of opening up the world of Halloween and haunts to people who aren’t so steeped in all things horror on a daily basis. “What’s really neat about this movie is […] it hits on people that aren’t in the industry and touches different things that they can relate to. Because as a horror fan, you have your next door neighbor that looks at you strangely and doesn’t understand what you’re doing, [asking,] ‘What’s going on there?’ and think[ing] weird things. ‘What’s wrong with you?’–I get that one a lot,” she admits with a laugh. “But I think this movie really opens the door up and lets other people see what we’re doing, and that we’re real people.”
“Plus, the controversy that’s in the movie helps with the contrast,” Schnitzer adds. “So that way, it’s not just people looking at people that are scaring people and blanketly going, ‘You’re all crazy,’ or whatever. When you get to see the whole spectrum–from the horror to the heart, […] then people get to understand it.” When considering the further hopeful impact of Haunters, Schnitzer notes, “I tested this [film] out on a lot of people who hate Halloween and have never gone to a haunted house, and after watching this, [they] went to haunted houses!”
If that’s not an early marker of success for a film like this, I don’t know what is.
Haunters: The Art of the Scare is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital platforms.